CHARLESTON -- State and national groups have offered praise for this week's report issued by the Independent Commission on Judicial Reform.
In the report delivered Sunday to Gov. Joe Manchin, the panel said West Virginia needs a mid-level appeals court to lighten the caseload of the state Supreme Court. The group did not recommend an end to the partisan election of judges, but it did suggest the state study the feasibility of a creating a business court.
The 151-page report also suggested finding more uniformity and openness in how governors fill judicial vacancies.
To read the full report, click here.
West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse called the recommendation of an intermediate appeals court "a positive first step" in the judicial reform process.
"The Commission's recommendation of an intermediate court of appeals, along with a corresponding right of appeal, would move our state's judiciary closer to the national legal mainstream," WVCALA Executive Director Richie Heath said. The Commission recommends that judges initially be appointed to any created intermediate court of appeals, something WV CALA says, "should be done in the best way possible to ensure that as little politics as possible is involved."
The Commission wrote in its findings that West Virginia goes against the national trend of states that have created intermediate appeals courts. Over the last 50 years, the number of states with an intermediate court of appeals has tripled. West Virginia is also one of only two states in the nation that doesn't grant an automatic right of appeal.
"The adoption of these two recommendations would better ensure that legal errors are corrected, and would allow West Virginia to develop more consistency in its laws." Heath said.
Other Commission recommendations included the implementation of a public-financing pilot program for one of two state Supreme Court elections in 2012, codification of certain appointment standards for judicial vacancies, and additional study of the feasibility of establishing specialized business courts/judges for the state. While the Commission studied the issue of judicial selection, it ultimately made no recommendation as to the best method of selecting judges in the state.
"WV CALA would like to have seen the Commission recommend a switch to non-partisan elections, which would lessen the politics in selecting our state judiciary," Heath said. "Fortunately, the Commission has laid the groundwork for additional debate on this important topic."
Heath said other problems in the court system identified by WV CALA, but not specifically addressed by the Commission include a weak venue law, an overly broad medical monitoring rule and weak standards for determining injury in exposure cases.
The West Virginia Business and Industry Council (BIC) also praised the report for "thoughtful and appropriate recommendations that will serve as a foundation for important reform of the West Virginia court system."
BIC Chairwoman Jan Vineyard said the organization is particularly pleased with the commission's recommendation for businesses to have an automatic right of appeal in the form of a mid level appeals court.
"The option for state businesses to appeal judicial decisions affecting their operations is not only fair, it sends a positive message to other businesses considering locating here," Vineyard said.
She noted that Chesapeake Energy cited the inability of the state to have an automatic appeals court in place as a primary reason for the company's decision to scale back their investment in West Virginia.
Vineyard said that BIC will work with other business organizations and Manchin to urge the West Virginia Legislature to codify the Judicial Commission's recommendation on the automatic right of appeal.
"We stand ready to help in any way we can to see that the reforms recommended by the commission are enacted into law," she said.
The American Tort Reform Association also likes the idea of an intermediate appeals court.
ATRA President Tiger Joyce said the mid-level court would pay for itself by boosting the economy and tax revenues.
"The commissioners deserve a great deal of credit for the thoughtful roadmap they've provided to West Virginia policymakers," said Joyce, whose Washington-based organization routinely has cited the state as a "judicial hellhole" in its annual report of the same name.
"Economic growth and job creation have been stymied in the Mountain State because of its courts' reputation among business leaders. Fearing unfair trial court decisions, and frustrated without a guaranteed right to appeal those decisions, too many businesses and companies leave the state or choose to avoid it altogether in the first place.
"So ATRA very much supports in principle the commission's recommendation that the state legislature act to establish an intermediate level appeals court. Such a court would ease the burden on the Supreme Court of Appeals, freeing the high court to continue hearing a discretionary docket focused on important or novel legal issues."
Joyce said the intermediate appeals court could also pay for itself within a matter of years "as employers nationwide become more confident in establishing themselves in West Virginia, and the state's economy and tax revenues steadily grow."
"We urge both Gov. Joe Manchin, who deserves much credit for initially empowering the court commission to study such important issues, and the Legislature to make establishment of an intermediate appeals court a top priority. We'd also like to see the Supreme Court of Appeals follow up on the commission's recommendation to study the creation of a business court for complicated corporate and contract disputes."
The president of the West Virginia Association for Justice President also issued a statement about the report.
"The West Virginia Association for Justice thanks Carte Goodwin and the other members of the commission for their months of hard work in reviewing our state's judicial system, evaluating the concerns of various groups and West Virginia residents and then issuing this report and its recommendations," Tim Bailey said. "WVAJ and its members will take the next few weeks to review these proposals and determine whether the recommendations address what we believe are the important issues facing the judicial system."